AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Railroads warn they may have to shut down unless Congress extends a deadline to install new safety equipment. Railroads agree the government-mandated system will save lives, but they argue it's complicated and expensive, and they need more time to build and test it. A few railroads are on track to meet the end-of-the-year deadline. NPR's Jeff Brady reports on one of them based in Philadelphia.
JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: At a rail yard in the Philly suburbs, Larry Charney is standing in the cab of a moving train, overseeing a test.
LARRY CHARNEY: You see the signal in front of us is red?
BRADY: Charney works for SEPTA, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority. This train is 40 years old, but it's been updated for the 21st century. Above the metal levers and analog dials near the engineer's head, there's a shiny, new digital display. That's part of SEPTA's Positive Train Control, or PTC system. At the moment, it's warning the engineer to slow down.
CHARNEY: PTC doesn't control the train. It tells the engineer what his maximum allowable speed is. The engineer still is in control of the train.
BRADY: But if he doesn't do anything, then...
CHARNEY: If he doesn't do anything, the train will come to a stop, and we'll show you here. He's going to - we're going to try to demonstrate him running by the signal. And the train will automatically be stopped.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)
CHARNEY: There's the alert. It's telling him he's going too fast. There's the stop.
BRADY: This system cost SEPTA about $328 million. Extend that to all the passenger and freight lines across the country, and you get a sense of the billions of dollars being spent. But the payoff is big, too. PTC could have prevented a 2008 train collision in California that left 25 people dead. It also would have slowed down the fast-moving Amtrak train that derailed earlier this year in Philadelphia, killing eight. Preventing deadly accidents is why Congress passed a law that says, by the end of this year, railroads must have PTC in place or face huge fines. Very few will meet the deadline, and instead of paying those fines, the railroads plan to shut down.
MICHAEL MELANIPHY: There will be a transportation crisis in this country with severe economic consequences.
BRADY: Michael Melaniphy heads the American Public Transportation Association. He says he can't just go into Best Buy and pick up a PTC system off the shelf. Each railroad has a unique situation and its own challenges. Some had trouble even securing the radio frequencies for all the parts of the system to communicate. And then, there are the inevitable bugs to work out. That's why the railroads want Congress to extend the deadline up to five years.
JEFFREY KNUEPPEL: I'm not surprised that an extension is needed.
BRADY: SEPTA General Manager Jeffrey Knueppel says several things came together to help his agency meet the deadline. Two years ago, Pennsylvania raised gas taxes to boost funding for transportation infrastructure.
KNUEPPEL: We had a good set of circumstances, a good plan, a good contractor, and we retained our people.
BRADY: Knueppel says a generation of experienced workers is reaching retirement age. He says, even with good planning, funding and some luck, meeting the deadline at the end of this year will be a photo finish for SEPTA. Jeff Brady, NPR News, Philadelphia.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.